'How I won Sh3 million for making plastic from water weed'

Stranded fishermen try to free themselves after they got stuck in water hyacinth in Lake Victoria on December 2, 2020. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

One day in 2021, Joseph Nguthiru and his classmates ventured out for a boat ride on Lake Naivasha.

What started as an exciting and fun-filled adventure ended up being a scary situation after the boat got stuck due to a hyacinth invasion in the lake.

“We had no way out. We struggled to get out for five hours,” Joseph recalls.

Nguthiru’s experience at the lake led to the conception of the idea of harvesting water hyacinth and convert to disposable material that would be used to produce disposable plastic alternatives.

“Invasion of the weed was a real-time effect for me. As an engineer, I thought I needed to think of a solution to eliminate the hyacinth and make it easy for fishermen and other people who depend on the lake for a livelihood,” he added. 

The idea was again conceptualised better by another experience in a tree planting activity he had organised back at Egerton University. The polythene seedling wrapper was a nuisance after the trees were planted and he had to collect every piece littered at the planting site.

“At that point, my idea was crystal clear. The plastics cannot be recycled, they cannot be buried and burning them would cause more harm to the environment,” Nguthiru says.

“I first discussed the idea with my lecturer because I wanted to pursue it as my final year project. Luckily it was approved and now I’m upscaling it for commercial purposes,” narrates Nguthiru, who graduated with a Degree in Water and Environmental Engineering at Egerton University in October 2023. 

To start him off, Nguthiru converted the weeds into a biodegradable material to make seedling wrappers.

“The wrappers are planted together with the seedlings, unlike the plastic bags that are commonly used. They decompose and they have nutritional value, so the tree seedlings grow faster,” he said.

Joseph Nguthiru receives an award from Her Highness Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum and Tadeu Baldani Caravieri, Director Prototypes for Humanity. [Courtesy]

The biodegradable seedling wrappers caught the attention of President William Ruto during the launch of the Tree Planting Initiative in Ngong Hill Forest in December 2022.

According to the innovator, the president wanted him to supply 15 billion wrappers for the next ten years and be used in the tree planting campaign as the government targets to grow 15 billion trees by 2032 to increase Kenya’s cover and to combat the impacts of climate change.

“After that recognition by the president, we started getting pre-orders from different government agencies and other organisations. But we could not produce mass numbers,” he said.

“If we were to produce 15 billion wrappers, it means we are supposed to produce 4.1 million pieces per day. But we do not have the capacity and one year has passed. We may not hit the target ad that is why we need to expand,” said Nguthiru.

He mentioned the National Youth Service as one of the institutions that have expressed interest in purchasing the disposable seedling wrappers.

Last month, Nguthiru’s startup project of converting water hyacinth into biodegradable plastics saw him recognised and awarded USD20,000 (Sh3 million) at COP28 in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Nguthiru’s project emerged as the best climate startup under the COP28 Nature, Food and Water Systems agenda alongside other priority categories that were awarded by Prototype for Humanity.

The idea is to achieve a two-in-one solution; to eliminate the invasive weed damaging aquatic life and solve the menace of single-use plastic pollution.

Hyapak was among the best innovations awarded by Prototype for Humanity for their contribution to mitigating climate change impact.

“There were universities worldwide showcasing their innovations at COP28 and we emerged the winner in the Nature, Food and Water Systems category,” said the innovator.

The award by Prototype for Humanity adds to the accolades the graduate’s Hyapak startup has won since its inception.

The startup emerged the best in the Innovation in Kenya by East Africa Community (EAC), Engineering Future Leaders Innovation, Manufacturing Startup in Kenya, World Engineering Day Hackathon and the East Africa Youth Climate Action award by the Intergovernmental Authority Development through Climate Prediction and Applications Centre (IGAD/ICPAC).

A sample of seedling wrapper made from processed water hyacinth. [Courtesy]

Hyapak was also selected as one of the best 30 startups in Africa and Total Energies awarded him as the StartUpper of the Year. Nguthiru said he also got a sponsorship from former US President Barrack Obama to join the Obama Foundation.

The award was presented to him by Sheikha Latifa Bint Mohammed Bint Rashid Al Maktoum who was the head of the jury and the chairperson of Dubai Culture and Arts Authority.

Besides reducing plastic pollution, the production of biodegradable single-use plastics would also contribute to the reduction of carbon emissions which are a major contributor to climate change.

However, Nguthiru has not been able to produce other plastic products such as cups, plates and other packaging products since he has not received the necessary approvals and certification from regulatory agencies such as the Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS).

The innovator uses a patented process whereby harvested hyacinths are supplied to them by the fishermen in the affected water bodies.

Currently, he is producing the wrappers at Egerton University where he is using university machinery to convert the weeds into a biodegradable material.

He says that upscaling his holistic approach to the startup would change the socio-economic livelihoods of the communities that depend on the water bodies infested by water hyacinths.

“Those who depend on the lakes lose in terms of fishing, recreational activities, and farming due to the invasion of the weed. Besides doing this for the environment, it is also about the formal and informal jobs we are going to create,” said Nguthiru.

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